HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — On a sound stage near Santa Monica Boulevard, actress Valerie Novak flubs a line and director Ladd Ehlinger Jr. asks her to repeat it. “And — action!”
Novak nails the line this time and continues with her dramatic monologue when the director’s cell phone rings, forcing another retake. Ehlinger mutters, “Can somebody fire the director, please?”
Sunday’s daylong shoot was running slightly behind schedule, as actors and actresses lounged around the studio awaiting their turns in front of the camera for a series of political advertisements. Three members of Ehlinger’s cast are Republican candidates for Congress and, by Labor Day, these videos could be bringing them YouTube fame.
Ehlinger has shown a knack this year for producing campaign ads that go “viral” online, turning obscure candidates into Internet superstars. Now the Alabama-based conservative filmmaker has come to Hollywood, working with Republicans who hope to make California a battleground in this fall’s congressional elections.
Talk to conservatives in this state and you’ll get lots of different viewpoints, but the one thing on which they all agree is that the California Republican Party is a useless, hopeless mess. The last time a Republican won a U.S. Senate election in California was 1988, which was also the last time a GOP presidential candidate carried the nation’s most populous state. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure in Sacramento has been like a “good news, bad news” joke: The good news is that a Republican got elected governor; the bad news is that he has become the state’s least popular governor in 50 years.
Exactly who or what is to blame for the state GOP’s dysfunctional condition is a matter of heated discussion whenever California conservatives gather. Many Republicans trace the trouble back to the governorship of Pete Wilson in the 1990s, while others point fingers at the influence of GOP financier Gerald Parsky, a predictable booster of moderate Republican candidates.
Meanwhile, some Republican operatives harbor deep doubts about the loyalties of Meg Whitman, the former EBay CEO who has invested more than $100 million of her own money in her GOP gubernatorial campaign. Forwarding an e-mail from a Whitman campaign staffer about the state party’s “Victory 2010” program, one Republican consultant added a sarcastic note: “Whitman expects candidates not only to pay for their database, but to man victory centers and funnel them data.”
Infighting and suspicion are commonplace in both parties everywhere, but the situation in California is especially discouraging to conservatives, who fear that key opportunities may be lost in a mid-term election where all the omens portend a banner year for the GOP nationwide.
“We’ve lost the brand,” says one Los Angeles-area Republican. “The party in California doesn’t stand for anything anymore.”
Trying to make the Republican Party stand for something except political ineptitude is a perennial goal of California conservatives. However, many complain that not only is the state GOP apparatus decrepit, but that their problems are neglected by the national party leadership, especially in this year’s congressional elections. Democrats control 34 of the state’s 53 House seats, but only one California Republican challenger — David Harmer, running against Democrat Rep. Jerry McNerney in the 11th District, east of San Francisco — has qualified for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program.
Other GOP House candidates in California find themselves struggling to get attention for their campaigns, a situation that isn’t helped by the state’s news media, which at times seem reluctant even to acknowledge the existence of Republicans. A consultant for Mattie Fein, who is challenging Democrat Rep. Jane Harman in the 36th District, was shocked last week when a reporter for the Torrance (Calif.) Daily Breeze answered an e-mail query with a blunt reply: “Don’t call or e-mail us — we’ll call you if we’re interested. And if you haven’t got it yet, we’re not interested.”
Trying to overcome that kind of media uninterest was part of what inspired Fein’s campaign to bring Ehlinger to Hollywood to produce video ads. Having previously directed two independent feature films (Flatland and Hive Mind), Ehlinger garnered nationwide attention in May with a YouTube ad for Dale Peterson, a Republican candidate for state agriculture commissioner in Alabama. That video has since generated more than 1.7 million views online, and the Fein campaign team hopes to get a similar viral boost in their effort to unseat Harman. Ehlinger also shot ads yesterday for California GOP candidates Mark Reed (challenging Rep. Brad Sherman in the 27th District) and John Dennis, who is taking on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the San Francisco-area 8th District.
In a year when the Tea Party movement has kindled grassroots insurgencies across the country, these campaigns in California aren’t waiting around for the GOP Establishment to ride to their rescue. As one local conservative operative said yesterday, “The party’s failed us. The media’s failed us. Sometimes, you have to take things into your own hands.”